Last year, 29-year-old Englishman Tom Rob Smith startled the publishing world with "Child 44," a thriller set in the Soviet Union in 1953. The hero, Leo Stepanovich Demidov, is a member of the secret police who tracks a serial child murderer and discovers his own soul. Such heinous crimes can't occur in the workers' paradise; to believe they do occur, and thus doubt the state, is a crime in itself. Demidov, trying to be an honest cop, finds himself threatened and betrayed at every turn. Readers marveled that such a young non-Russian could describe the horrors of Stalinism so grippingly. The book was compared to Martin Cruz Smith's "Gorky Park."
Smith is back with a sequel, "The Secret Speech." The title refers to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 address admitting Stalin's crimes.
The speech frightened Russians as much as it gave them hope. The same thing had happened three years before, with Stalin's death. Those in power masked panic with bluster; their victims in labor camps and exile felt a thrill but kept it hidden. Paranoia and mistrust had become a way of life. Almost every Russian had compromised with the regime -- who dared take a stand?
It's tempting for Americans to view these long-ago foreigners as spineless. But today, with hardly a repercussion to be afraid of, those who opposed Bush-era policies are acquitting themselves no better, while hard-liners such as Dick Cheney continue to warn that too much concern for civil rights will risk another 9/11.
In "The Secret Speech," Stalinists fear Khrushchev's reforms will result in civil war and exaggerate the danger posed by vengeful prisoners released from the Gulag. Leo is caught in the middle. He's ashamed of his secret-police past but thinks no good he can do will outweigh the evil he has done. His wife, Raisa, struggles to believe his transformation is real. Leo was involved in the murder of the parents of their two adopted daughters. Fourteen-year-old Zoya hates him. Eight-year-old Elena is fragile. As Raisa puts it: "Once fanatical about Communism, he was now fanatical about his family. His vision of utopia had become smaller, less abstract, and though now it encompassed only four people, rather than the entire world, it remained just as elusive."
In a totalitarian world, love is a weakness. Bent on exploiting it is Leo's worst enemy -- a woman he pretended to woo before he arrested her husband, a dissident priest, and sent both to the Gulag in 1949. The woman, Fraera, now free and leader of a gang, is playing a complicated game with Kremlin hard-liners. They let her murder several retired secret-police officers, creating panic they hope will undermine Khrushchev. She uses the opportunity to pursue her real prey, Leo, aiming not to kill him but to destroy his dream of redemption through family life.
After Fraera kidnaps Zoya, Leo, as long-suffering and durable as Russia itself, springs into action. He chases gangsters through rat-infested sewers. He faces an uprising on a prison ship bound for Siberia and is tortured by Gulag inmates. It doesn't end there.
Smith remains a fiendishly intricate plotter, but this is a routine thriller crammed so full of reversals that the life is squeezed out of the characters.
Even the editing is slipshod, and phrases such as "[l]owering his feet, the floor seemed to move" nag like the throbbing of a toothache. You can imagine how much better scenes would be on film. What Smith takes pages to describe, the camera would capture in a pan; the action would be even more explosive; the dialogue would improve. This is a novel that really, really wants to be a movie.
Harris is a critic and the author of the novel "The Chieu Hoi Saloon."